ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, COLORADO
LAKE HAIYAHA - PIXABAY
Established in 1915, the spacious Rocky Mountain National Park is smack dab in the middle of some of the most rugged Rocky Mountain terrain. Offering gorgeous mountain scenery and abundant wildlife, the park is popular with hikers. 78 peaks within the park exceed 12,000 feet including the tallest, Longs Peak, at 14,255 feet. From above the clouds, visitors view broad valleys, lakes... and many other tourists. Visitors may encounter including bighorn sheep, deer, mountain lions, coyotes, a variety of birds and a large population of elk. The most convenient way to see the park is by driving the 60-or-so mile long Trail Ridge Road (US 34) between Estes Park and Grand Lake, the highest continuous paved road in the country. There are several visitors centers, but don’t miss the absolutely magnificent views from the Alpine Visitors Center, at an elevation of about 11,800 feet roughly at the midpoint of Trail Ridge Road.
Our plan was to just drive through the park on our way to central Colorado. The weather was rainy and overcast and put a severe damper on visibility and ultimately our enjoyment of the park (the only bad-weather day of our 10-day vacation). Clearly, this is a stunningly beautiful park... we just couldn’t see very far. Don’t forget... the temperature goes way down at high elevations, so you might need long pants and a jacket. I estimate that the temperature at the summit on this dreary July day was in the mid-50's. Before entering the park, we stopped at the Fall River Visitors Center about 5 miles west of Estes Park. It was very nice, well kept and full of information. They have periodic nature and history presentations as well as wildlife exhibits. My kids (9 and 11) enjoyed dressing up in western frontier garb.
Perhaps the highlight of our park visit was the dramatic view from the Alpine Visitors Center. We literally looked down at the clouds in the valleys between the peaks. We could see small melting glaciers in the cirque adjacent to the visitors center and a herd of elk way below. And we could see Longs Peak and many more of the park’s tallest summits from this vantage point.
We crossed the Continental Divide at Milner Pass (elev. 10,759 feet). This stop wasn’t as crowded as some of the others and provides two great photo opportunities... one with the "continental divide" sign and one with the adjacent alpine lake.
Another driving option for you nature-loving Daniel Boone types is the 11-mile long Fall River Road. I seriously considered this option, but due to the weather, crowds, impatient kids and long driving day, I opted for the easier drive along Trail Ridge Road. According to the National Park website... "Fall River Road is primarily gravel, one-way uphill and punctuated by switchbacks. The road leads travelers from Horseshoe Park (a short distance west of the Fall River Entrance) through the park's wilderness to Fall River Pass, 11,796 feet above sea level. The posted speed limit is 15 miles per hour, so it is not for the impatient. The road itself is safe, but narrow and curved. In places, the trees of the montane and subalpine forests are so close that motorists can touch them. Old Fall River Road is ideal for visitors seeking to become intimate with nature."
We saw dozens of elk during our descent on the west side of the park. Some were right along the road, unfazed by the parade of admiring tourists. Keep an eye out for groups of cars pulled along the road to view the wildlife, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I don’t absolutely recall the speed limit on the west side of the park, but I believe it’s 45 mph. Whatever it is, it is strictly enforced. Rangers’ radars tripped my detector several times and we saw a fellow tourist pulled over by one of the Rockies’ finest.
Allow at least 2 ½ hours to enjoy Trail Ridge Road and hope for good weather. Add another hour or so if you elect to drive Fall River Road. Trail Ridge Road is only open about half the year... Memorial Day weekend to late fall. The drive is not difficult by mountain standards, but there are tight curves and steep climbs. Park admission is among the highest in the National Park System. Rocky Mountain National Park is perfect for those who would like to get up close and personal with the mountains from the comfort of their car. - Mike Bechtol 2002